The Ultimate Rider Award

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Meet a few of the riders who have earned USDF’s new Diamond Achievement Recognition

Reprinted from the May/June 2022 issue of USDF Connection magazine

By Amy Swerdlin

Rider awards—the bronze, silver, and gold medals and freestyle bars—are USDF’s most popular awards and among its best known. In 2021 alone, 1,045 medals and bars were awarded—the highest number ever in a single competition year.

The rider medals are the oldest awards program in USDF history, with the first ones distributed in 1974, just one year after the organization’s founding. Reflecting the growing popularity of dressage freestyle, freestyle bars were added to the awards roster in 2002. Both rider medals and freestyle bars recognize achievement “through the levels” (see the 2022 USDF Member Guide or visit usdf.org for details, rules, and requirements).

Two keys to these awards’ popularity and longevity: Scores earned never expire, and a competitor can earn scores aboard multiple horses. Many riders take pride in earning multiple medals and freestyle bars over the years, and some competitors have amassed the entire set of six medals and bars.

To honor those riders who have earned their bronze, silver, and gold rider medals and their bronze, silver, and gold freestyle bars, the USDF Awards Committee created the Diamond Achievement Recognition. At the end of the 2021 competition year, the inaugural group of 67 riders was recognized for this achievement.

Let’s meet a few members of the first crop of Diamond Achievement Recognition recipients and learn about their journeys to this crowning USDF rider award.

Goals and Aspirations

“For me, the medals were benchmarks,” says adult-amateur competitor Johnny Robb, of Wellington, Florida, a USDF member since 1992 and owner of the equestrian-focused marketing and PR firm JRPR. “Having the medal goals helps riders gauge their journey.”
“What’s special about the medals journey,” Robb adds, “is that you are in it with so many others. To this day, I enjoy hearing that someone got their final score for their medal.”

CELEBRATION RIDE: Johnny Robb aboard her Zerbino Interagro after receiving her USDF gold medal

Some competitors find the rider medals a more-attainable goal because “you do not have a time limit on the achievement, and you can ride any horse,” Robb says. “As amateurs, most of us have careers, families, and other things in our lives that may stall the journey, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come back to it. In addition, if a horse gets hurt, you can pursue the medal and freestyle-bar goal on an alternate horse, or wait until your horse is well to continue your quest.”

Among the first riders to be awarded all the medals and bars needed for the Diamond Achievement Recognition is Heather Mason. The dressage pro from Lebanon, New Jersey, had earned all of the necessary scores by the early 1990s, long before the freestyle bars were even created. Although she estimates that she’s re-earned all of the scores aboard the 14 horses that she’s trained to the Grand Prix level (including Lincoln RTF, with whom she won the Intermediate II Open and Grand Prix Open championships at the 2021 USDF Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®), her first medals partner was Limerick, a Polish Trakehner mare purchased for her as a two-and-a-half-year-old by her parents when she was just 13.

FIRST OF MANY: The first time Heather Mason cantered down center line for the Grand Prix was aboard her Polish Trakehner mare, Limerick. They’re pictured at the FEI North American Young Riders Championships (now NAYC) in 1988.

“I started competing Limerick as a four-year-old and had the Grand Prix and freestyle scores completed when she was 12,” Mason recalls. “Limerick was a real ‘chestnut mare.’ She taught me patience and perseverance. At most levels with her, I was struggling to just break 55%! At first, she was very tense and unpredictable at the shows. Achieving a 60% was always a big deal.”

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

Diamond Achievement Recognition recipient Olivia Chapeski had to climb mountains—literally—to achieve her dressage goals.

Chapeski’s home base of Missoula, Montana, is surrounded by five mountain ranges, and “the primary obstacle was, and still is, traveling long distances to shows,” she says. In recent years, the closest USEF-licensed/USDF-recognized dressage competition has been 130 miles away, but usually Chapeski has to traverse at least two states, two mountain passes, and about 200 miles to reach a show grounds.

“The show season in Montana is awfully short, and the shows that aren’t ten hours away are limited,” Chapeski says. “You’ve got to make the hay while the sun shines.”

TREASURED PARTNER: Olivia Chapeski and her first Grand Prix horse, Joust, in 2008. It was aboard Joust that she earned the scores for her silver and gold medals.

Chapeski viewed earning her USDF rider medals and freestyle bars as “icing on the cake” and realized that the process couldn’t be rushed.
“Given the scope of it all, it seemed like something that couldn’t be accomplished with anything but patience and time,” she says. It ended up taking her 15 years and four horses to complete the Diamond Achievement, beginning with a Quarter Horse mare, Blac Harmonee, and finishing with an Azteca gelding, Indro, that she still owns and rides today.

“The only real disappointment” in Chapeski’s medal and bar quest, she says, “was not being able to finish my gold bar on my first Grand Prix horse, Joust, who earned me my silver and gold medals. I recently lost him at the grand old age of 30, and one of the many things I thanked him for was helping me earn those medals. I only managed to get one of my gold-bar scores with him. He was never quite competitive enough to get that 65 percent, though not for lack of trying. So despite earning my first gold-bar score in 2004, it wasn’t until 2017, when the next Grand Prix horse was into his second year at the level, that I finished getting all the scores. It was a long wait!”

It Takes a Village

For some riders, the list of horses that helped them earn their medals and bars traces the arc of their dressage careers from youth to the open ranks.

TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK: Reese Koffler-Stanfield riding Marques WEC, her partner for the USDF bronze freestyle bar; and horse owner Pam McKee

Reese Koffler (now Koffler-Stanfield), of Georgetown, Kentucky, was just 15 when she earned her USDF bronze medal aboard “my childhood horse, Vivat. My silver medal I earned during my young-rider career with my schoolmaster, Leraar, and with Joery, who was the first horse I trained to Grand Prix.

“Earning my gold medal was extremely special,” she continues. “I had lost a young horse, and I felt that my career was over until my friend Jennifer Conour let me ride her wonderful horse, Fascination. He showed me that I could be an FEI rider, and that was a turning point in my career,” says Koffler-Stanfield, who is now a USDF-certified instructor/trainer through the FEI levels and a successful FEI-level competitor.
Many supporters may play a role in helping riders to reach their goals. Another who contributed to Koffler-Stanfield’s success is her “amazing client, Pam McKee, who allowed me to ride her horse, Marques WEC, to my First and Second Level scores” for the bronze freestyle bar. “She embraced my goal, and we worked together on those freestyles. It was lots of fun for both of us.”

“When I started riding, the rider medals were my ultimate goal,” Koffler-Stanfield says. “The Diamond Achievement Recognition truly illustrates my entire career as a rider.”

In Johnny Robb’s case, it took a coach who was willing to let her take risks, a bit of a push from a legendary dressage master, and a little sport psychology to get her to the finish line.

Robb had earned her bronze and silver medals by 1999 and her bronze and silver freestyle bars by 2004. She knew that “going for the gold was the biggest hump” and quips: “I asked myself: Will I live long enough to get this done?”

Robb’s horse Zerbino Interagro had competed at Intermediate level and “had a lovely piaffe and passage,” she says, but “I never felt ready to do the Grand Prix with him, especially without confirmed one-tempis.” But in a lesson, the late German-born master Walter Zettl “told me to start showing in the Grand Prix. He told me that neither I nor my horse would be getting any younger, and the time was now! ‘You have enough of the Grand Prix movements with this lovely horse, dear. Don’t worry; you will learn more in the ring,” Robb recalls Zettl saying.

Spurred by Zettl’s encouragement, “I came home and announced to my trainer, John Zopatti, that I would now be entering the Grand Prix and going for my gold medal. He looked shocked and joked that we weren’t doing my first Grand Prix in Wellington!” Robb says. After earning an eligible score, “my goal of a gold medal was so close, I knew what I had to do next. I visited my go-to hypnosis performance coach, Laura King. In a single session, she helped me realize and overcome my block. Two weeks later, I laid down my first perfect sequence of 15 one-tempis ever in the show ring.”

Chapeski also has supporters to thank. One is Washington state-based trainer Kari McClain, Chapeski’s instructor for 30 years.

“Kari has been coming to clinic at our barn on a regular basis since I was eight,” Chapeski says, “and she ultimately was the force who gave me the knowledge and resources to pursue everything dressage-related in my career.” Chapeski is also grateful for her father, fellow USDF bronze, silver, and gold medalist Robert Chapeski, “who schlepped me around to shows for so many years.”

Class of 2021 Diamond Achievement Recognition recipients, we salute you! For more information about this new USDF awards program, see “Diamond Achievement Recognition Fast Facts” above.

Diamond Achievement Recognition Fast Facts

USDF Diamond Achievement Recognition celebrates the achievements of those dressage competitors who have been awarded their USDF bronze, silver, and gold rider medals and their USDF bronze, silver, and gold freestyle bars.
USDF tracks this accomplishment, so there’s no paperwork required! If you are eligible, you will receive an e-mail notifying you of your status at the conclusion of the competition year. There is no cost to receive Diamond Achievement Recognition.
Diamond Achievement Recognition consists of a certificate of achievement, a letter of recognition, a special lapel pin, listing in the yearbook issue of USDF Connection and on the USDF website, the rider’s name engraved on a plaque that is housed at the USDF National Education Center, and an icon on the rider’s dashboard on the USDF website.
To learn more about this and other USDF awards programs, including rider medals and freestyle bars, see the USDF website or the current USDF Member Guide.

USDF Awards Committee chair and avid adult-amateur competitor Amy Swerdlin is a USDF bronze, silver, and gold medalist and a USEF “r” dressage judge. She is part-owner and manager of the 320-stall Palm Beach Equine Sport Complex in Wellington, Florida.

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